When History Meets the Present

  • Posted on October 30, 2009 at 11:52 pm

St. Patrick’s day in the spring draws our hearts and minds to the ancient ways of the Celtic people.  On this day we remember the songs and dances of our ancestors from centuries long ago with love and fondness.  The wheel of the year turns and spring becomes summer and summer turns to fall. 

The fall hosts a holiday that is deeply steeped in the traditions of the Celtic people.  The holiday most commonly referred to as Halloween is, and always has been, a part of who we are; whether we like it or not.  Samhain (a Gaelic term), otherwise known as Halloween, is pronounced differently in many of the ancient Celtic lands:  Ireland = Sow-in; Wales = Sow-een, and Scotland = Sav-en. 

Today we have twisted and distorted this holiday into something dark, sinister and downright evil – and perhaps with good cause.  Although the retention of one’s own beliefs is important, it is equally important to know and understand the history of your own people.  And such is the case with Samhain. 

Samhain was a time of celebration of the last harvest of the year or the end of summer.  The wheel of the year must be understood during this time. Although Samhain was the end of the old year, the new year did not occur until Yule. This left a considerable amount of time between the old and new year and some tribes considered this as "the time that is no time".  A very powerful and dangerous time of the year because it was believed in the days of the Celts that the veil between our physical world and the spiritual world of the dead is at its thinnest during Samhain.  Thus allowing the dead to freely pass back and forth between the two worlds.  The living were not able to move through the veil due to the physical confines of their bodies.  This was also the time when the doors to the Sidhe were open.  In Gaelic languages, if I remember correctly, the term Sidhe is pronounced Shee.  Thus Ban Sidhe = Banshee.  All referring to the Little People or Fairy Realms. 

It was also believed that the dead would come back during this time to visit their relatives.  Samhain eve is called the Feast of the Dead, and perhaps not so coincidently, coincides with the Hispanic Day of the Dead.  Although the beliefs and traditions surrounding the two holidays differ in many areas.  The Celts would leave food out, usually outside of the home, for the visiting relatives to prevent them from entering the home and setting up housekeeping so to speak.  This is believed by many to be the tradition from which trick or treating was originally born.  There are other thoughts and theories about this.  However, it is widely known that the trick or treating of today has nothing in resemblence to anything that was practiced by the ancient Celts.  It wasn’t until the dark ages when trick or treating became a common practice in some countries.

Now on to what Great-Grandma and Grandma have said about Halloween — both were devout Christians.  However, like many Irish people, they enjoyed passing down the culture and traditions of their people.  It would seem that the little people would be out and about on Samhain wreaking havoc in the villages and the countryside – to include the dreaded Pooka.  She also stated that spirits of the dead walked the earth on this one night.  Apples, gourds and other treats were to be left outside for the same reason as the ancestors stated.  Feed them outside.  Spirits were to be feared at this time because they could cause harm and damage to man and property at will.  It was better to placate them with something they wanted (brought on by a longing for familiar things from their days among the living).  If they were to come inside they would find themselves surrounded by the very same things they had when they were alive and stay for at least one full turn of the wheel –if you ever got them out.  This also included the Fae Folk – whom were even less welcome in the house of good Irish folk, than the spirits of the dead.  Now, according to Great-Grandma, and I’ve never been able to find evidence proving this is true, women of the Celtic tribes were nearly traumatized when learning their child would be born between Samhain and Yule.  It was the absolute worst time to have a child due to the dangers that lurked everywhere.  Fae folk awaiting the opportunity to place a changling into the crib of a new born babe.  Spirits of the dead waiting for the moment to once again inhabit a human body to live among the living.  And then there were the evil spirits that passed through the veil as well.  They caused bad luck and death of infants and / or mothers.  They did all sorts of nasty things.  No, this was not the time to have a child.

My Grandmother’s never made mention of the worshipping of Gods and Goddesses.  However, it was and still is believed by people that Samhain is the time when the old "Celtic God" would return to the Underworld to be reborn to the Goddess at Yule – the Winter Solstice.  And so ensues the arguement of who had Christmas first which we will not entertain at this time.

Halloween or Samhain is deeply rooted in our history.   I for one am not the type of person that gets involved in the debates of Halloween and if it is right or wrong.  I only know that it is.  It was.  And it probably always will be around in some form or another, but it is always rooted in the ways of our ancestors — and that we cannot change or deny.

4 Comments on When History Meets the Present

  1. GFBison says:

    Thank you for the historic insight! I’m always fascinated by how traditions begin and evolve through time. Your reluctance to join into the moral debate surrounding Halloween is likely a sign of wise restraint on your part. I’m too easily lured into such discussions, and oftentimes spout off my opinions without thoroughly thinking them through beforehand. I guess it’s just one of those gaping cracks in my wall of perfection that you mentioned in a blog a few days ago.

  2. PrairieWoman says:

    There was a time when I used to jump in on every conversation regarding moral debates, and then one day it just wasn’t all that important to me anymore. Or, just not worth the effort. Although the crack in the wall is still there. LOL!

  3. abra la mente says:

    Thanks for sharing this perspective on Halloween. It was quite interesting.

  4. roxane s. says:

    You’ve retain all of these stories and information quite well, PW. One of the storytellers I met recently has Irish roots. In fact she lived there until age 4 and her parents spoke the language so she grew up hearing it. She gave me a c.d she’d made with some of her stories and many of them were ghost-story-ish; in particular about these little people who come out at night and with the possibility of wreaking havoc. It reminded me a lot of what you shared here. I agree with GFB that it’s interesting to hear the history. And it also reminds me that we can make all things good, if we like, whether it be Halloween, Christmas or whatever else it is that we pay attention to and celebrate (or not) in our culture. Will we look for the good in these traditions, or search out the bad/evil? Will we live in the light, or dark? You say you are not looking to engage in a moral argument. I can respect that. It’s important for me to look for the moral angle because I consider myself a seeker, someone who is always seeking out God’s will for me, and because of that, the moral angle always feels very compelling to me. I don’t push hard for the debate, either, even though I included that word in my last post. To me, it’s more about offering up information from my perspective, to help educate, even while knowing I am far from the expert on anything. I can only give what I’ve been given, offer back up what I’ve witnessed and searched out. And I have a natural inclination to share those discoveries with others, always being mindful of that fact that our journeys are wholly unique. Thanks again for digging up all of that from your memory bank for our account. :)

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